Occupy’s 89%? Where anarchism shuns unionists, it allies with the ultra-right

EUGENE, Ore. — Recently anarchist collectives in the Occupy movement in Oakland  and the Pacific Northwest have put forward a new slogan, “We are the 89%.”

This is a subtle way of divorcing organized labor from the popular movement, since it is based on an explicit claim that the struggles of organized labor are not merely no longer central, but that the interests of organized labor should no longer be a focus of activist support.

In Oregon, I have personally seen use of this slogan to divide people in Occupy Portland and Occupy Eugene. I have read detailed accounts of similar divisions in Occupy Oakland and Occupy Seattle.

And I am convinced that we must challenge both the theory and practice from which this arises as vigorously as possible.

One of the most striking explanations of the theory which underlies this anarchist attack on organized labor can be seen in a blog posted by the Oakland Commune. Other elaborations of this basic idea have appeared elsewhere, but it is significant that the Oakland Commune has been prominent in promoting and rationalizing Black Bloc direct action tactics which have alienated organized labor and working people in general.

It is a sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Oakland Commune, which sees the failure of organized labor to immediately form up behind the Black Bloc as an indication that organized labor should be demonized and dismissed in favor of a mix of the unemployed, the underemployed, lumpenproletarians, and the homeless who form the new revolutionary hope.

The Oakland Commune dresses this reactionary assessment of organized labor in a supposedly new discovery about the nature of capital production and circulation.

Globalization has exported many production jobs from the American core to the Third World periphery as part of the export of capital, which Lenin predicted in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

However, the Oakland Commune seizes on this characteristic of imperialism to claim that in America the working class has been supplanted by a new “proletarian class” – the unemployed, the underemployed, petty bourgeois students, lumpenproletarians, and the homeless. Let us examine their arguments:

  • “This is why the general strike on Nov. 2 appeared as it did, not as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from large factories and the like (where so few of us work), but rather as masses of people who work in unorganized workplaces, who are unemployed or underemployed or precarious in one way or another, converging on the chokepoints of capital flow.”
  • “Where workers in large workplaces – the ports, for instance – did withdraw their labor, this occurred after the fact of an intervention by an extrinsic proletariat.”
  • “We find it helpful here to distinguish between the working class and the proletariat.”
  • “Worker’s struggles these days tend to have few objects besides the preservation of jobs or the preservation of union contracts. “
  • “The power of the Occupy movement so far – despite the weakness of its discourse – is that it points in the direction of a proletarian [as opposed to working-class] struggle in which, instead of vainly petitioning the assorted rulers of the world, people begin to directly take the things they need to survive. “
  • “Rather than an attempt to readjust the balance between the 99% and the 1%, such a struggle might be about people directly providing for themselves at a time when capital and the state can no longer provide for them.”

What the Oakland Commune has done is taken the way cyclical crises in capitalism have been exacerbated by the shift from manufacturing to service sector jobs, occasioned by globalization, and used it to turn the concept of class on its head.

The unemployed and underemployed are not separate from the working class – they constitute what Marx termed “the reserve army of labor.” They are and they remain intimately a part of the working class, regardless of the anarchist fantasies of the Oakland Commune.

Neither are the homeless a new class – their class origins and identifications depend on their relationship to the means of production: the current crisis of capitalism has made many working-class people homeless. It does not change their class affiliation.

Marx did identify the lumpenproletariat as an element which was incapable of class consciousness, primarily professional criminals who prey on the working class and those elements of the working class who have completely become mercenaries for the ruling class, i.e., working-class Germans who joined the SA, the Nazi storm troopers, in the 1920s. The Oakland Commune thinks that criminals who prey on the working class and class traitors are a revolutionary vanguard. History has proven them wrong.

Rather than face up to that responsibility to build genuine class consciousness, the Oakland Commune rolls out anarchist platitudes:

  • “…initiative here has come from people who work in non-unionized workplaces, or (for good reason) hate their unions, or work part-time or have no jobs at all.”
  • “The coming intensification of struggles both inside and outside the workplace will find no success in attempting to revitalize the moribund unions. Workers will need to participate in the same kinds of direct actions – occupations, blockades, sabotage – that have proven the highlights of the Occupy movement in the Bay Area.”

These attitudes threaten to destroy any possibility of alliance between the Occupy movement and organized labor.

Photo: People’s World